When it comes to the theme of my column – Rethinking Communications – this is a pretty central question, and one that keeps recurring in my ongoing research, both when talking to vendors and over the course of industry conferences I’ve been attending lately.
I come across a wide range of perspectives in my research, and it’s clear to me that these terms are not given proper consideration when thinking about technology investments. Large enterprises tend to make more serious distinctions than SMBs, but they’re too often used interchangeably and/or mashed together.
You may find such semantics moot, but both vendors and businesses are guilty of these loose associations, and if you’re trying to figure out the value of unified communications, this isn’t clarifying anything. While both outcomes are desirable, you need to think more critically about the value of each, especially if you’re trying to tie business outcomes to your investments in technology.
When UC first came on the market, there was no need to have this discussion, as it was sufficient to talk about the basic idea of unifying all communications on to a common platform. This capability was new, and offered value to IT by virtue of giving them a window to manage all these modes. Previously, everyone did their own thing, with some applications running off-net, effectively locking IT out of these workflows.
Who really benefits from UC?
Somewhere along the line, collaboration entered the conversation, shifting the focus in a fundamental way. Initially, UC was about giving IT back some control and making their jobs a bit easier. Of course, end users benefited by having more effective communications tools, but I would argue that IT really stood more to gain.
After all, they had a clear problem on their hands. With the rise of web-based communications applications, network control was slipping away to end users who were placing new demands on network services that IT wasn’t equipped to manage. On top of that, IT is the prime sales target for UC vendors, and they essentially own it inside the organization, along with all the responsibilities that come with it.
All told, then, restoring some order to IT’s domain may well be a valid driver for UC, but it wasn’t moving the adoption needle along fast enough. Vendors have a lot invested in UC, especially those who need a roadmap for the post-PBX (News - Alert) world. This is the point at which the focus shifted from communication to collaboration.
What’s the difference and why does this matter?
While IT has a major role to play to enable communications, the onus falls squarely on employees when it comes to collaborating. All IT can do is keep the UC platform running smoothly, then step back and let employees go about their business.
When employees collaborate effectively, decisions happen faster, problems are solved more easily, and new ideas translate into success stories more often. In short, communication is about processes, and collaboration is about outcomes.
Management understands these differences, and will respond more favorably to this kind of value proposition. Communicating is table stakes, and while UC will certainly improve the underlying processes, this alone doesn’t have a lot of business value. As mentioned above, IT gets some control back this way, but this may not resonate strongly with management. They have bigger issues around sales growth, customer acquisition/retention, cost reduction, profitability, etc. This is where collaboration can have a big impact, especially when management sees this as a core competence to make the business more competitive.
You could say this means vendors are doing a bit of an end-run around IT to spur UC adoption, and it seems to be working. By all accounts, UC growth is trending nicely now, and I would contend this new focus on collaboration is one of the reasons.
This is the reason the UCC moniker has largely replaced the UC moniker among vendors. IT may be the economic buyer, but employees are the end users, or consumers of UC. All employees must communicate – including IT, but it is the UC end user who does all the collaborating. The only way IT can influence those outcomes is by supporting the processes that enable collaboration.
Jon Arnold (News - Alert) is principal of J Arnold & Associates, an independent telecom analyst and marketing consultancy with a focus on IP communications, and writes the Analyst 2.0 blog. Previously, he was the VoIP program leader at Frost & Sullivan.
Edited by Maurice Nagle